Sutherland defends '24' politics

Another season of "24" is upon us, and once more Keifer Sutherland is fielding questions about its politics, which he thinks has been right down the middle.

"We had the first African-American on television playing a president. We indicted a conservative president for criminal behavior," Sutherland told the TV critics press tour in Pasadena, Calif. "Jack Bauer, to me, has always been the most apolitical character, very much like the Secret Service. You don't protect a president because of your political beliefs. That's your job, and you serve that president, regardless."

"One of the things that I was always so unbelievably proud of our show is that you could have it being discussed by former President Bill Clinton and Rush Limbaugh at the same time, both using it and citing it to justify their points of view," Sutherland says. "That, to me, was incredibly balanced."

And so, he says, "it was balanced from the very beginning. And I believe it is still balanced today."

But there was one exception, he said.

There was a dialog in season seven between Bauer and the by-the-book FBI agent about one of the shows most controversial strains: torture.

"I thought that was an unbelievably clever and brave thing to do. And I would have to say that's the only time we consciously addressed a specific political issue in the context of the show," Sutherland says.

"Whenever you describe politics as informing the drama of something, it's, by definition, propaganda or uninteresting," says producer Howard Gordon. "You want to take characters that would have credibility — Cherry (Jones)' s character last year, for example, (President) Allison Taylor, has a very, very specific stand and a very thoughtful and very well-considered and very deeply felt stand about this. And she defends it, I think, remarkably."

And though the drama reflects the world's political powder keg, sometimes it's not too specific about the countries, such as the Middle Eastern country that is of immediate interest this season. Through the first four episodes, though negotiations go on with its president at the United Nations, it's scarcely named.

"When you begin to name countries other than, of course, the United States or China or Russia, you start getting into some very tricky territory," Gordon says. "And by definition, you're going to say things that you don't necessarily want to say because this is, after all, a fantasy adventure show. And so really simply, not even out of political correctness, but out of sensitivity to the real world, which is so much more complex, we just would rather not step into that thicket."

Sometimes, Sutherland says his Bauer persona precedes him in the complex world, though sometimes it surprises him.

"I've always been shocked that people that actually I'm flying with say, 'Oh, I feel safer on the plane,' " he said. "I'm thinking: 'You must not watch the show because everybody around me gets killed.' "

"24" returns with a two-hour premiere Sunday.